Sometime last year I received Naseer Ahmed Cheema’s collection of short stories Soymber. I had begun the book with the intention of writing a review, as I had already read one or two stories in the issues of Pancham, the foremost literary magazine on this side of the border.
I enjoyed the range of topics and characters, the language and the realism. Except for two stories, Qaan aur Chaan and Gharana ik Tlism, most stories are well-grounded. Yet I ended up feeling as if there’s something off in almost every story. I don’t know if it has anything to do with the lack of revision or the absence of primary audience a writer should have prior to publishing. It is as if the stories had not been allowed to evolve despite robust imagination, and that either a resolution or an unexpected turn of event had been inserted forcefully.
Take, for example, a fairly well-written Satto da Dholan, about a mother, loved and respected by her children, who has taken to getting up early to leave the house only to return late in the evening, every day. Her children feel frustrated, a bit humiliated in the eyes of friends and neighbours, but the mother is stubborn and won’t tell her son why she goes to a particular spot. The son pleads, "Mother, why do you go out there? Who are you waiting on?" And look at the beauty of her response, "Qado, be sensible. I am your mother, so stop harassing me. The poop from your childhood is still clinging to the inside of my nails."
Despite setting up such an interesting, suspenseful situation it all comes down to a morality tale -- the day she brings a stranger home, who had lost a bundle of money, which didn’t belong to him and for which he would’ve been in trouble. That money in the bundle was found by Satto, and now that she’d found him she must return it to him and also dispel any misunderstanding her children and the neighbours still might have regarding her daily trips.
The reader feels deflated along with the son rather than rooting for Satto’s honesty. It reminded me of a childhood poem Mere paas chalees dinar hain! If this was the only reason why the otherwise well-crafted stories felt cracked, I could’ve just said, well, let’s wait for the next collection.
But there’s something else that’s bothersome about some of the stories and it is most highlighted in the title story, and one could say, the best in the collection. It comes close to being a veneration of violence, even if that’s not the author’s intention.
It is indeed a writer’s moral obligation to expose structures of violence in a given society upon which incessant injustices are carried out against the weak, and while doing so the author has to tread a careful line between art and propaganda. But, unfortunately the tacit approval of an act of violence or an institution of oppression is a common enough trap a lesser writer willingly creates for himself.
The character of Noorinath (played by Mustafa Qureshi) cutting off his leg in the climax scene of the legendary Maula Jatt and the great feudal patriarch (played by Mehboob Alam) holding his turban high as he prepares to drown in the approaching flood in the classic teleplay Waris are cases in point. Writers and filmmakers, for all sorts of reasons, end up stylising and dignifying brutality and violence, the very thing they set out to expose and critique, and in doing so they expose their own, subconscious fascination with feudalism or patriarchy.
What Soymber achieves is even more problematic.
The title story exhibits the author’s craft and intimate knowledge of our rural culture and it is spiced up with the right amount of metaphorical landscape. Our protagonist Dilmir is sent by his mother to his sister’s house to fetch their cow back without the calf which is an unspoken gift to the daughter. The torment with which the cow is forced to leave and the ordeal Dilmir has to go through draws our attention to a patriarchal system and the suffering of women.
On the way back, near the railway track, the cow finds herself stuck in a marsh. It further hints at the state of women in a society stuck in pre-modern times. The railway track laid by the White man is suggestive of the partial arrival of modernity. Dilmir alone cannot free the cow. In the forlorn landscape eventually arrive five women (panj peer?) including the young, the extremely strong Jindan (jind, zindah/ life, alive) and it is she who, with her power of mind and limbs and ability to delegate, manages the cow out of a sticky situation. It is not love at first sight but when the idea of a marriage is broached, it is Jindan he thinks of, and as luck would have it soon they are married. Two extremely strong, brave persons have formed a family.
Brave but weak. That’s a wonderful set of opposites to work from for a deft writer. Brave because they can manhandle a wolf and cream it. Weak because they can’t muster the courage of mating. So far so good, a bit comic but keeping the reader attentive to see if the story gets any deeper. Their weakness becomes semi-permanent as years go by and Dilmir’s mother is getting impatient and yearns for a gora chitta baal! Despite her husband’s admonition. Ah, the reader speculates at this point, the story is really about our cultural hypocrisy where a mother is willing to sacrifice another woman for the sake of acquiring a progeny.
Wait, not so fast! The couple’s weakness (read shyness?) is of stubborn nature as it has outlasted Dilmir’s parents. Now the two are alone in the house, twenty plus years have passed and my imagination couldn’t help but conjure an older, graceful, grey-haired Nadeem and Shabnam tragically accepting the way things have turned out, with no more drama left. Wrong again!
A group of dacoits attack their house and are bent on stealing and humiliating the couple. The entire village is away on a bridal procession. Things come to a head when a dacoit expresses a desire to take Jindan with him on his horse. Dilmir manages theatrics that Amitabh Bachchan and Sultan Rahi rolled into one would have envied. The two finish off the three dacoits and the entire village is going gaga gaga over the feat.
It is after butchering off three men, taking law into their own hands, the two finally make love, with Jinda leaving her cot to snuggle in with her hero with proven malehood, while he’s asleep. The dangerous idea the author seems to have toyed with here is that love and violence are connected or reinforce each other. This is careless thinking. This is akin to remembering the good things the Raj or patriarchy had done for humanity. Male-oriented tilt in the title notwithstanding, one must not read things literally while reading literature, but two good people who have just slaughtered three bad men now feel liberated, sexually, tests the reader’s credulity.
Are there more killings to come by? More sex? How painfully have we absorbed the virtues of Victorian morality of repressed carnal desire!